A few weeks ago, on a typical Monday, a friend asked me how my weekend was. Normally I give a one-word answer like “great!” or “excellent!” The words don’t really mean anything, as they’re along the line of the knee-jerk “how-are-you-good-how-about-yourself” exchange we make with the cashier at the grocery store.

This particular Monday, though, I replied, “Outstanding!” It caught my friend up short, and he wanted to know why. I explained to his satisfaction (details irrelevant), but it got me thinking about the importance of the term. Somehow “Outstanding!” is a proclamation that carries a bit more weight than “Great!” or “Excellent!” Maybe it’s because the latter two are overused, along with the oft-refrained “Awesome!”

Be that as it may, I tapped my friend (and contributor* to The Laws of Subtraction) Karen Martin, founder of Karen Martin & Associates and author of The Outstanding Organization, to provide a little insight, in the context of group performance.

SONY DSCKaren defines an outstanding organization as “one that has consistently delivered high value, relative to the alternatives, to stakeholders for years, if not decades.” Measurement of that value, she argues, can vary, and isn’t as important as the consistent delivery of value, however it’s specified.

Karen maintains that outstanding organizations share three capabilities: problem solving, continuous improvement, and resilience.

I challenged her to provide me with the three things an organization must subtract, or restrain themselves from, to be outstanding.

“First, say no to excessive ambiguity,” she wrote. “The world is fluid, certainly, but operating in an excessively ambiguous environment is costly, frustrating, and often results in poor quality decisions and output.”

“So,” she continued, “whether it’s unclear priorities, ill-defined processes, or unclear roles and responsibilities, reducing the ambiguity provides greater bandwidth to successfully cope with externally-produced ambiguity that is often outside an organization’s control.”

Personally, I’m a fan of well-designed ambiguity, such as the kind shared space traffic intersections employs. The effect of unintelligent, unintentional and poorly-designed ambiguity, though, is confusion. And there’s more than enough confusion in the world, for sure. I asked her for some starting points. Her answer:

“Begin noticing where people seem confused. Attack the area where you have the greatest need. Maybe it’s clearly communicating priorities to your team, or clarifying your team’s roles and responsibilities. Maybe it’s communicating more clearly to your internal suppliers and customers. Practically speaking, examine email exchanges, noting the language that adds confusion. Make sure it doesn’t appear in future communication.”

And number two on the list?

“Do fewer things at once,” she wrote. “Multitasking is a misnomer, because it’s impossible to perform two cognitive activities at once. What you’re really doing is ‘switch-tasking.’ It’s a costly habit that easily adds 20-50% additional time to complete the task at hand.”

What Karen’s talking about is focus. “By focusing on fewer initiatives, projects, new products, or goals—and completing them before moving on—you’re able to accomplish far more in a defined period of time with higher quality and less wear-and-tear on the people involved.”

Third on the reduction list is inconsistency.

Create consistency through standardization,” she urges. “Standardization enables greater flexibility and responsiveness because it’s easier to adjust when people operate in a defined way. The common fear around standardization is unfounded; it’s one of the most freeing and creativity-enabling action an organization can take.”


“Work doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it,” she concludes. “There are many ways an organization can use subtraction to replace costly, stressful, and quality-eroding behaviors with the behaviors that enable providing value to one’s customers. Outstanding organizations gain market share and become an employer of choice for a reason. They operate with high degrees of clarity, focus, discipline and engagement. It all begins with making a commitment to a better way, and the courage, discipline and patience to see it through. You can make a difference no matter where you sit in the organization. But only if you start.”

*Click HERE to download, read, and share Karen Martin’s “Silhouette” from The Laws of Subtraction.